North·NWT Votes 2019

N.W.T. advocates offer remedies for an ailing child welfare system

As the Northwest Territories heads into its Oct. 1 election, observers inside and outside child and family services - the division in charge of child protection in most of the territory - are offering their takes on the territory’s ailing system, and proposals for what the next government could do to make it better.

Cultural programs, financial support for families, changes in management could help fix system, say critics

Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation executive director, Donald Prince said change in the territory's child and family services needs to come from the top. (Michael Hugall/CBC)

Since the last federal election, critics have sounded off about the abysmal state of child protection in Canada.

Their charges pertain specifically to harms caused to Indigenous children and families. Commissioners of both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls roundly criticized governments and child protection agencies for perpetuating the atrocities of residential schools by separating children from their families and cultures, and for exposing them to abuse. 

As the Northwest Territories heads into its own election on Oct. 1, observers inside and outside child and family services — the division in charge of child protection in most of the territory — are offering their takes on the N.W.T.'s ailing system, and proposals for what the next government could do to make it better.

'We are deeply disappointed in the results of this audit,' Glenn Wheeler of the office of the Auditor General of Canada, said of the October 2018 review of the N.W.T.'s child and family services. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

State of the system

In the Northwest Territories over the last decade, Indigenous children have consistently made up at least 95 per cent of young people involved with the child welfare system.

In a searing review last October, the Auditor General of Canada said serious deficiencies in child and family services in the territory put children's safety at risk.

As part of its response, the territorial Department of Health and Social Services released a "Quality Improvement Plan," with 70 actions to ameliorate problems with Child and Family Services.

The plan focuses on enhancing employee satisfaction, and increasing compliance with department standards. It also includes efforts to hire and train more staff.

One notable new hire is Colette Prevost, the division's latest territorial executive director.

Prevost came to the division a month ago after a stint as the director of advocacy and communications at the YWCA in Toronto. Before this she was the executive director of the Sudbury and Manitoulin children's aid society.

Prevost said continuity is important during transitions of government, and she intends to stay the course with the division's Quality Improvement Plan.

"I've looked at the system coming in, and moving forward on these key areas of quality improvement will set our systems in a good way to set up for the future," she said.

Colette Prevost was executive director of the Children's Aid Society of Sudbury and Manitoulin from 2008 until 2015. She is now the territorial executive director of N.W.T.'s Child and Family Services division. (Colette Prevost/LinkedIn)

Prevost added that she has "always had a genuine interest in ensuring the rights of everyone are understood and are solicited in every system. 

"So now it's an opportunity for me to work in government and to be the receiver of that feedback."

Donald Prince, the executive director and CEO of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, has worked with families reeling from the trauma of having their children apprehended. 

He said change in the system needs to come from the top.

"I know [former Health and Social Services Minister] Glen Abernethy had a lot of good intentions and a lot of his heart was in the right place trying to get this done, but there are people in the higher level of the ministry who like the status quo," he said.

Prince said "the next minister needs to kick some butt and get rid of some people," and promote others who will do the hard work necessary to improve the system. 

'Families should be supported'

"The system focuses a lot on the system instead of the people in it," said Julie Lys, the on-the-land healing and wellness coordinator for the Northwest Territory Métis Nation in Fort Smith. "Instead of putting more money into monitoring, and putting in systems to evaluate whether kids should be taken away … kids should be supported in the home and the family should be supported."

Families involved with child and family services are often dealing with poverty, and the condition can be misconstrued as neglect, said Bree Denning, the executive director of the Yellowknife Women's Society. She said financial support to families can make a big difference.

The next minister needs to kick some butt and get rid of some people.- Donald Prince, executive director and CEO of the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation

The system should be propping up parents, said Denning, "rather than punishing people for not being wealthy enough to give [their children] everything that another wealthy ... family would."

Prince, with the Arctic Wellness Foundation, said parents may be told to get addictions treatment or counselling before they can be reunited with their children. But wait times to get into treatment are long, he said, and some programs require too much paperwork.

In any event, Prince added, "maybe alcohol is not the problem, maybe it is a coping mechanism."

'We had our own traditional parenting practices'

Lys said many people involved with Child and Family Services are living with the trauma of colonialism, residential schools and family separation. For some, its affected their ability to parent. 

"A lot of our parents and grandparents were affected by residential school and they weren't parented in residential school, they were controlled," she said. "But we had our own traditional parenting practices that worked really well and we lived in a good way prior to colonization."

Lys said developing a strong cultural foundation can be life changing. She wants traditional parenting programs set up that are run by Indigenous people. 

"The system tends to focus on physical health and mental health. They don't understand the emotional or cultural part of our people," she said.

"Restoring that [culture] is really, I believe, the key to the healing and wellness and bringing our families back together."

About the Author

Sidney Cohen

Journalist

Sidney Cohen is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife.